The Live Music Forum


Saturday 2nd July 2005 - Licensing: James Purnell continues misleading claims


Yesterday (Fri 01 July) licensing minister James Purnell again made extremely misleading claims about the Licensing Act and live music. This time it was 'You and Yours' on BBC Radio 4.

He says, for example, that, once they get the new licence, licensees will 'never have to apply again'. But if the original application had, as required, set down the days and times of performance as, for example, jazz band Sunday 12-3pm, folk duo on Thursday and Friday, 8-10pm, this then becomes a condition of the licence. So live music on any other day or time is illegal. To change this the licensee would have to go through the whole variation application process again, plus costs.

Note that the cost of advertising the variation application, required for most bars and restaurants wanting live music, was over £250 for the village hall featured in this report.

This is a 20-minute piece looking at the problems people are already experiencing across a wide range of activities and venues (see rather long transcript below).

BBC R4 'You and Yours' - Friday 01 July 2005
Licensing Act - problems

PRESENTER: The new Licensing Act comes into force in November this year. Applications for licences have to made to local authorities by the 6th of August. So far most of the discussions have been around the effects the changes will have on pubs, introducing more flexible opening hours and paving the way for 24-hour drinking. But the impact goes far beyond. Every village hall, golf club, local shop, school. Any venue which sells alcohol at any time will need a new licence. The Act is supposed to tackle alcohol related crime and disorder, strengthen protection for children, and move responsibility for granting licences from magistrates to local authorities. The minister responsible for implementing the Act is James Purnell, minister for licensing. So how will this new Act improve on the current situation?

JAMES PURNELL: Well I think there's been a big er misunderstanding about this Act. People have said that it's about 24-hour drinking. And in fact it's not and never was. The um, two main things this Act are going to do is first of all give much more power to local communities to deal with any problems they feel exist in their local area about, um, alcohol-fueled violence or noise caused by pubs or any worries people have around the sale of alcohol. And on the other hand er, for those, er, pubs and restaurants which operate well, give them more flexibility about er, about how they trade. Er, in particular they can apply for longer hours, although no-one, er as far as we know virtually no-one's applied for 24-hours. Um, but you know just generally it makes it easier for people to put on live music, easier for them to serve food later on at night. So it's a combination of more flexibility for the responsible majority, and then more powers to crack down on the minority that do cause problems.

PRESENTER: Now the British Beer and Pub Association has told us that it broadly supports the Act partly because it amalgamates six different licensing regimes into one. Presumably that should cut down on bureaucracy for pubs in the long run.

PURNELL: In the long run it will, yes. We've calculated that over ten years the savings to industry will be about two billion pounds. Erm, in the short term however it does mean that we are having to through this process of amalgamating those six regimes. And in effect people transfering the licences that they had previously into the new Act and that does mean, er, filling in a form and providing some information. Er, you know, the light at the end of that tunnel is that they can then know that they'll never have to apply for a licence again. Erm, so there is a big saving in the long term. There's a lot more flexibility for them in how they run their establishments. But in the short term there is a hurdle to be overcome and we don't minimise that.

PRESENTER: As you've said in the short term there is quite a hurdle to be got over. And a lot of the other organisations that we've talked to are less than happy with the application process. Mark Holstock has been to one corner of Northumberland where people feel that their very way of life is under threat because of these new rules.

MARK HOLSTOCK: The village of Felton is about 20 miles north of Newcastle, it's just off the main A1 road through to Scotland. And this building here is at the very heart of the village, the village hall. Sylvia Harrison's chairman of the management committee that runs its.

SYLVIA HARRISON: At the moment we're in the main hall, a big room with a stage at one end. We can seat 180 people in here, which we very often do actucally when there' s a big function going on.

[sound of music - keep fit class]

SYLVIA HARRISON continued: There's something in the hall every day. We have a history society, WI, brownies, scouts, cubs, keep-fit, bowls, all kinds of stuff. And I think it's an essential facility for this village.

MARK HOLSTOCK: Although activities like the keep-fit classes generate some income for the hall, social events such as weddings and parties where alcohol can be sold, are vital. Until now, all that Sylvia and her committee had to do to run a bar here from this serving hatch at the end of the main hall, was to apply to the local magistrates for an 'occasional licence'. From November things change dramatically.

SYLVIA HARRISON: We have always had a public entertainment licence. It is now being called a 'premises licence'. Because we want to include things like the pantomime we are 'varying' it which gives us this 24-page, 26-page actually, load of nonsense which some civil servant has thought up. We can only have 12 events a year at which alcohol is sold. We must put a notice in the local paper. That has cost us 223 pounds and 25 p. In addition to the licensing department of the local authority who we are sending our application to, we also have to send it to the local planning department in exactly the same building as the licensing, environmental health, the police, the fire, the child protection and trading standards. And some of the questions they ask. We are having to say 'what are we doing to prevent crime and disorder'. I mean, give me a break, this is a village hall, this isn't a huge club on the quayside in Newcastle.

MARK HOLSTOCK: Well, one of the clubs which uses the hall is Carpet Bowls. Their chairman Peter Cook says the way the new rules are being applied has descended into farce.

PETER COOK: One anomaly we had was that the bowls club actually have a presentation dinner every year. And I went along to a seminar at Amble and asked the person there 'Now, we're giving the wine away, do we need a licence?'. 'Oh yes, you're supplying the wine and you need a licence'. And I said 'But this is ridiculous we've done it for years and never used a licence'. I said 'OK, I'll buy the wine and I'll stand outside the door and as people come in I'll give them a bottle'. 'Oh you don't need a licence then'. So, you know, it's a ludicrous sort of Act, it just really doesn't fit the village hall rural scene.

MARK HOLSTOCK: And a restriction on the number of events serving alcohol could cause serious financial problems for the hall, especially when it comes to money-spinners like wedding receptions.

SYLVIA HARRISON: I reckon we have between 15 and 20 events a year where alcohol is sold. If we are reduced to 12 we are going to lose, we reckon, between £50 and £100 an event. So we could lose five or six hundred pounds at least a year, and that, for anybody who's tried to raise money will know, takes a lot of raising.

MARK HOLSTOCK: Sylvia, one of the options for you would be to go for a full alcohol licence so that you could serve alcohol whenever you wanted to, just like any normal pub. Why don't you do that?

SYLVIA HARRISON: Because the cost of doing that would be another £330 plus, and we simply cannot afford to go that way. We have to get somebody who's prepared to go on a two-day training course to get the licence that they need. That would cost £175 for the two days. We are all after all volunteers here. Nobody earns anything. In fact its costs most of us quite a bit to actually do what we're doing. We're also very busy people and nobody has the time certainly to go away and spend two days on a training course to find out, to learn something, that they really don't want to do in the first place.

MARK HOLSTOCK: But it isn't just the village hall which is having problems. Felton is lucky enough to still have a village shop. John and Julie Kingsley have been here for eight years. And in this corner just behind the counter there's a small off-licence section. And, just like the village hall, the shop has had to apply for a new licence.

JOHN KINGSLEY: [serving customer] 77 pennies young man. There's so much paperwork that I have to fill in and a lot of it's just mumbo-jumbo, and it doesn't actually apply to me, being a small village shop. Me and Mrs went through it, filled it in the best we could. There's no way we could fill it in on our own. So I went to the council and even she couldn't understand most of it. And I have to go back to run through it again to make sure it's still right, that it is right.

MARK HOLSTOCK: [sound of golf club striking ball] This is Tynemouth Golf Club, which is set in a rather leafy suburb of Tyneside. It's not one of the north east's wealthiest clubs and the new regulations are proving quite a drain on its finances. The problem for golf clubs up and down the country isn't what happens out there on the course. It's what happens when people playing golf want to come to the 19th hole to have a little refreshment afterwards. Tim Scott is the Secretary of Tynemouth Club.

TIM SCOTT: It's a very attractive bar. We overlook the course. It's a vital income line to us, in addition to the golf club subscriptions. The problem is that at this stage we're not entirely certain that we can serve alcohol to casual visitors. The legislation, as it's written at the present time, appears to prevent us from selling alcohol in that way, inasmuch as we need to post their names some 48 hours before they are due to attend, which as I'm sure you appreciate is quite impractical.

MARK HOLSTOCK: What kind of advice have you received from the authorities on this?

TIM SCOTT: Conflicting views. We wrote via our local MP and had a reply from Richard Caborn which indicated that the initial understanding was perhaps not as stringent as we thought.

MARK HOLSTOCK: But it's not just the confusion over whether visitors will be allowed to buy a drink in this bar which is causing problems. There's also a considerable cost involved for this club in applying for the licence in the first place.

TIM SCOTT: We also are required to submit plans of the premises. Now it's quite expensive having those plans drawn up and having them checked. Without looking at the amount of man-hours involved, which has been quite considerable, I would say at this stage we'd be looking at a figure of around about £2,000 by the time the application is finally submitted.

MARK HOLSTOCK: £2,000. It's a golf club. It is a sport of the affluent. Surely £2,000 is not going to hurt you very much?

TIM SCOTT: No, I quite disagree. It is going to hurt us. There is a huge over-capacity in the golf club business at the present time. We do not have full membership, and £2,000 is a significant amount of money for us to be faced with.

PRESENTER: Tim Scott talking to Mark Holstock. James Purnell, the minister for licensing, was listening to that. Mr Purnell there are a lot of unhappy people there. You've heard the points they've had to make. A major theme that's cropped with almost all the other people we've spoken to is how complicated, how often costly it is to go through this process. David Short, who has been a landlord of the Queen's Head in Cambridgeshire for the past 40 years, said that if his son hadn't come into the pub he himself would have taken early retirement by now, because the process is so complicated. He wants an application form which is understandable to any reasonably intelligent person.

JAMES PURNELL: Well, the general point is, yes we do recognise that there is a burden, and people getting their applications in at this stage. But once they've done so they will then never have to apply for a licence again. And under the current regime there are all sorts of anomalies and all sorts of antiquated rules which do mean that, day to day, people facing restrictions. So people have to run off to the magistrates courts every time they want to extend their hours; they have to, um er, face, for example, for public entertainment some local authorities charge thousands of pounds for public entertainment licences. So, the regime once it's in will be much simpler for people to operate. But, um I mean, on village halls, we are working very very closely with the organisation that represents village halls. And er, you know, people have to choose between either going for the regime of having 12 Temporary Events, which is a very light touch regime, or if they do go for um er a licence, that will be a fee... I was surprised that your, um er, listener was saying they were paying £330 pounds a year because most village halls will be paying er £70 or £170 something like that every year. And if for example they were having a public entertainment licence before, in some areas that can be hundreds of pounds. So, er, some village halls will be saving money. The great advantage for them is that they won't be having to go off to the magistrate to get these licences every time they want to, they want to hold a wedding or a reception. And that can be £10 or £25 a go, so it is definitely - we recognise that for volunteers there is a challenge getting those forms in, we don't disagree with that. But if they do go out and get a licence we feel that it will be easier for them to operate because they will be able to put on whatever events they want to after that and they will never have to reapply for that licence.

PRESENTER: They may never have to reapply for the licence but I have got a copy of this form in front of me. It is 26 pages long, there is also a booklet that goes with it that explains, and I think it runs to some 60 pages, which explains how to fill this form in. Now on your websites there is a list of forms which in itself runs to two A4 pages of possible forms that you could apply for. This is not simple. And volunteers have been telling us that they've had to spend weeks of their time, plus there is all the additional information that is required in order to fill in the form in the first place.

JAMES PURNELL: Well that goes back to the point we made at the start of the programme about going down from six regimes to one. So, there are lots of different regimes at the moment and to able to cope with all the varied people we are talking about here, from circuses to village halls, pubs to nightclubs, restaurants to kebab shops you had to have guidance which would cover all of them. You had to have forms that covered all of them. But the typical organisation converting their current licence to the new regime would only have to fill in seven pages, and quite often can use existing forms. There are people who are exception to that, we recognise that, but overall, er, there is no way people have to fill in hundreds and hundreds of pages. It's, you know, it is a seven page form for most people.

PRESENTER: However, it does seem at the moment, and you yourself have said, er, on more than one occasion, you think something to be the case, it does seem that at the moment there is an awful lot of confusion. People like John and Julie Kingsley who run that village shop in Felton that we just heard about went to their local authority for help only to find that even the local authority doesn't know what's going on. The golf club secretary Tim Scott said he got conflicting advice from his local MP and his local authority. You yourself are talking about 'red herrings', and 'an awful lot of ironing out needs to be done'. Surely therefore that would indicate that perhaps we should be taking longer about bringing this Act into force.

JAMES PURNELL: Well that's just a normal process with any piece of legislation you will have things which people need to get to grips with at the beginning. And that's partly the nature of this Act, which is to devolve power to local communities, means that you will have a variety of interpretations, erm, between different local authorities and with, you know, different people raising different problems, so that the issue in Tynemouth may be very different from the issue in the centre of Birmingham. And this legislation is flexible enough to do that.

PRESENTER: Let's come back to this question about fees. Let me take another example, Hitchen Boys School Parents' Society, the chair is Kate Hart. She contacted us. They have got to pay £635 for their licence when they previously paid £16 to sell drinks at fund raising events. Now, that is because the fee is based on the value of the entire school premises. Is that really reasonable, when perhaps the school is using the school hall, a small fraction of the school premises, in order occasionally to sell drinks? And is it reasonable that a third of all the money that's made for school funds will end up going to pay for the licence?

JAMES PURNELL: You know the key point we tried to come up with a system which is as simple as possible to calculate the amount of fees. If we had a system.. we looked into having a system which was based on something more sophisticated, like the amount of alcohol sold for example. But then the cost of administering that system ends up being so expensive that everyone overall has to, has to pay more. So, we went for a system which was relatively simple based on the rateable value of the premises. That does mean that in some cases you do get erm, you do get rough justice. But it means that overall the system is simpler to operate and cheaper to operate..

PRESENTER: But what....

JAMES PURNELL: We have committed, however, to having a review of that system which is going to report er, in mid-November. So if there are concerns about that, they can be looked into.

PRESENTER: Can the government really justify standing behind an independent review panel in the future, when people are telling them, and have been telling them long before the Act comes into force, that there are these problems. And even MPs are arguing that these should be addressed now.

JAMES PURNELL: Well, we made lots and lots of amendments as this Bill went through Parliament. We listened to lots of things that people said. It's a very different Act from the one that went in. And it's absolutely right for government to be reviewing the legislation after it's come in, which is exactly the way we always do that. You have to look at evidence before you make any changes so it's completely normal procedure.

PRESENTER: The Association of Small Direct Wine Merchants have also contacted us. Warne Edwards says that one online retailer he knows has a storage unit which is only 65 square feet, but it's in a warehouse. And the fee he will have to pay will be the same as the local hypermarket, three times the fee for a typical local pub, because his fee will be based on the entire rateable value of that warehouse. Now, if the independent review panel finds in future that a fee like that was unreasonable, will people like the Small Direct Wine Merchants get that money back?

JAMES PURNELL: Well we would look at changing the fee if that was the case, but I, I'm not sure we could do that retrospectively. So, you know, there may be an issue there and we could look at it through the erm, through the panel. The key point about warehouses is, is actually on the other side of this er, this particular field, I get quite a lot of people coming to me and saying that in their area they're getting alcohol being sold over the internet and over the phone with no regulation to people under-age, causing real problems with antisocial behaviour and that was an area that could be totally unregulated before. So, in all of this Act we are having to tread a balance between dealing with people's concerns about binge-drinking and alcohol-fueled violence, whilst also having a system that is fair and isn't overly regulatory. So, you know, it is, it's a new Act, and will clearly be with any new piece of legislation there will be things which will need to be looked at, based on experience. But overall the Act is going to help giving people more powers to deal with binge-drinking.

PRESENTER: Only 20% of the forms have been filled in to date. Um, and as we've said before there are many volunteers out there spending days and days on filling them in. If come August the 6th many of those applications still aren't lodged, or if the local authorities aren't able to deal with them in time because of the backlog, will you extend time limits.

JAMES PURNELL: We won't extend the August the 6th deadline. Erm, but if people.. because we just can't under primary legislation. If people have missed the August 6th deadline then they do have an opportunity to apply to get a new licence. And so that instead of converting their existing licence they will be appyling as if they were a new organisation, and they then have until November the 24th to get that licence in. The key thing I would say to all of your listeners is do try and meet that August 6th deadline because it is a um, it's a simpler process, erm but if they do miss that then they do need to concentrate on getting the application in well in time so it can be processed before November 24th.

PRESENTER: And come November are we likely to see many premises then unable to carry on operating if they don't have a licence?

JAMES PURNELL: Well not if they get their licence, but you know obviously anyone who doesn't get their licence would be at risk of being prosecuted for trading illegally in the same way that if you didn't fill in your tax form, for example, you would be putting yourself at risk legally that way as well. So it is people's responsibility to fill in those forms. It is our responsibility of raising awareness and learn any lessons from the legislation. But overall I am confident that people will see in a year or two's time that this is an improvement on the really archaic and confused system that we had before.

PRESENTER: Archaic and confused as opposed to what we are being told is, um, farcical by the people who are having to apply. Isn't this just all a matter of unintended consequences that you are now having to deal with?

JAMES PURNELL: Well, you will always get unintended consequences of a big piece of legislation like this. As I say you are going down from six regimes to one. It's something which affects a wide range of licensees. But it is a much better piece of legislation than the framework we had before. It will help make for a better-run, more flexible alcohol industry, it will help public entertainment. And, you know, we will er, you know, we will be happy to be judged in year or two's time, on whether this legislation is an improvement or not.

PRESENTER: James Purnell, minister for licensing.


Hamish Birchall